Building great things

Choir at Canterbury Cathedral, photo by David Iliff. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0.
The prevailing WASP culture of mid-century America reflexively recoiled against the pomp of the European church. The argument was that the resources of the church would be better spent on the poor than on accumulating treasures in a church building. It’s an old argument, echoing from Matthew 26:9 (where it’s in fact hypocritical).
This viewpoint undermined my attitude toward my work for a long time. In a world where service is the highest expression of humanity, art and music are a frivolous waste of time.
Cloisters at Canterbury Cathedral, photo by David Iliff. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0.
The 26 medieval cathedrals of England date from about 1040 to 1540. In the great era of cathedral-building, a sizable portion of the British population was living in wattle-and-daub hovels. The twentieth-century impulse would have been to use that money to build them warmer houses. That would have been a great loss for western culture.
The Anglo-Saxon conversion is traditionally dated from 597 AD, when Augustine arrived in Canterbury, but no systematic program of religious building started until the Normans showed up. There is not a single example of Saxon secular architecture left in Britain. They simply didn’t have the technical skill or social organization for large-scale building projects until they were colonized.
Parliament Hill in Ottawa is an example of how English Gothic influenced world architecture.
English cathedral builders borrowed extensively from the Norman culture from which their masters came. Since they were built over centuries, most cathedrals incorporated several styles and made no effort to integrate them. This storm of creativity fused together a uniquely English architecture.
American Gothic, Grant Wood, 1930, features an example of American Carpenter Gothic architecture. He liked the house and wanted to paint it along with “the kind of people I fancied should live in that house.”
Could that have happened had the impulse to build been directed into housing the poor? There are echoes of English Gothic and Tudor architecture all over the world, including in the neighborhood in which I live. Has anyone ever consciously tried to copy a public housing project?

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